A new variable in the fan experience at Falcons home games will play out on a week-to-week basis this season: Will the stadium’s roof be open or closed?
From 1966 through 1991, all Falcons home games were played outdoors at roof-less Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. From 1992 through 2016, all of the team’s home games were played indoors under the fixed roof of the Georgia Dome. In 2017, Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s retractable roof remained closed for all but one Falcons game.
But this year, with the complex roof finally fully functional, the Falcons will decide as each game approaches whether to open the $1.5 billion stadium to the sky.
To have the roof open for about 60 percent of games, which would be roughly five of eight regular-season games, “is what we are targeting,” said Greg Beadles, chief operating officer of Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s sports and entertainment properties.
But that depends on another variable: game-day weather.
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The Falcons haven’t set firm meteorological parameters for when the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof will be open, but their “general guidelines” will be to consider playing afternoon games with it open if the temperature is “from the 50s up into the 70s” and the precipitation chance is less than 30 percent, Beadles said.
At a night game, the roof could be open even if temperatures are “a little warmer than that,” because there won’t be an issue of direct sunlight affecting fans, he added.
As for whether the roof will be open for the Falcons’ home opener Sept. 16 against the Carolina Panthers, watch the weather forecasts in the week ahead.
“If the temperature is like it typically is in mid-September for a 1 o’clock game – well into the 80s – then we probably won’t have it open for that one,” Beadles said. “But from late September or (early) October until mid-November is probably our best time from a weather standpoint. I’d say we feel really good about opening it up for all those games. You could have a good run of four or five Falcons games in a row where it’s open.”
If the Falcons play as many games with the roof open as they suggest, it will buck the firm trend of the four other NFL teams with retractable-roof stadiums.
The Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts have chosen to play more than twice as many games in their current stadiums with the roofs closed than with them open. They have averaged playing with the roofs open only about 30 percent of the time. None of the four teams had the roof open for more than two games last season.
The Cowboys have opened the roof of nine-year-old AT&T Stadium for just 27 percent of their regular-season and post-season games there, 20 of 75. The Texans have opened the NRG Stadium roof rarely in recent years – it was kept closed for all games in 2015 and 2016 – after opening it frequently in the 16-year-old stadium’s early seasons.
The teams say weather conditions and fan comfort are the driving factors in their open-or-closed decisions. The call can be easy on days of heavy rain or extreme temperature, but controversial in other conditions, such as when direct sun makes certain seats uncomfortable on otherwise pleasant days. Non-meteorological factors also are believed to influence the decision at times, such as a team’s desire for louder crowd noise in a closed stadium or a preference for controlled conditions.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are supportive of opening the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof, Beadles said.
“They love playing in the outdoors in Atlanta,” he said. “We are all on the same page about wanting to have it open as much as possible.”
Throughout the design and construction of the stadium, the Falcons cited two reasons their roof could be open more than others: Atlanta’s favorable fall weather and a stadium designed to withstand water.
“You compare it to some of the other retractable-roof stadiums that are out west – it can get really hot there during football season,” Beadles said. “Some of the stadiums also were not designed to be able to take on water and drain it out. If there’s even a small chance of rain, they pretty much have to keep it closed. We have drainage just like an outdoor field. We wanted to make sure we had the opportunity if it was raining to ... keep on playing.”
While the Falcons won’t open the roof if there’s a significant likelihood of rain, they can be more willing than other teams to open it if there’s a slight risk of showers, Beadles suggested.
The retractable portion of the roof is at the center of the stadium, over the field, leaving the seats largely covered by the fixed portion.
Whether to open a roof for NFL games is up to the home team. According to the NFL’s 2018 policy manual for clubs, the team has until 90 minutes prior to kickoff to inform the referee or highest-ranking league official working at the game whether the roof will be open or closed. The opening or closing must be completed no later than 60 minutes before kickoff.
League policy also permits the home team to change the roof position at halftime based on weather conditions, provided certain procedures are followed. Also, an open roof can be closed at any time during a game by order of the referee “due to the development or anticipation of a hazardous condition that threatens … participants and/or spectators,” according to league policy.
Although the final determination won’t be made until 90 minutes before kickoff, the Falcons plan to communicate to fans about two days before games if they intend to open the roof.
“That way, if someone is on the side of the stadium where there is going to be more sun, they’ll know to bring a hat. Or maybe bring a jacket if it’ll be a little colder,” Beadles said.
The roof was open for the Falcons’ first regular-season game in the stadium last year, but it was closed for the rest of the season because of problems with its operation. Work was finally completed on it this summer.
At a July media event, the eight-piece roof, each piece weighing 500 tons, was opened in eight minutes and 17 seconds, beating the 12-minute maximum architects had long promised.
The roof was open for a Falcons exhibition game Aug. 30, even though the outside temperature -- 87 degrees at game time -- exceeded the team’s guidelines that night. It was basically a trial run of opening the roof just an hour before a game.
Only one Atlanta United match has been played with the roof open this year, mainly because it wasn’t fully operable when the weather was favorable early in the season. The soccer team has three remaining regular-season home matches, including two in October.
One person who will be keeping a close eye on the roof in operation at Falcons games this fall is Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events, who oversees the Super Bowl. The big game will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3.
O’Reilly said during an Atlanta visit this summer that the NFL would like to play Super Bowl LIII with the roof open if the weather cooperates -- a big if for February in Atlanta. An ice storm marred the Super Bowl here in 2000.
“We certainly hope for good weather,” O’Reilly said, “and the opportunity to have the roof open.”
OPEN OR CLOSED?
In addition to the Falcons, four other NFL teams have retractable-roof stadiums. A look at the percentage of home games they have chosen to play with the roof open in those stadiums:
Team / Stadium / Roof open pct.
Dallas Cowboys / AT&T Stadium / 27%
Arizona Cardinals / State Farm Stadium* / 29%
Indianapolis Colts / Lucas Oil Stadium / 30%
Houston Texans / NRG Stadium / 31%**
* - Name changed this week from University of Phoenix Stadium
** - Excludes 2008 season, when damage from Hurricane Ike forced the roof to be kept open for all games